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Kevin Yee

Beer Adventure

The carnival- like Paradise Pier area
The carnival- like Paradise Pier area

Ferris wheels, midway games, roller coasters, and beer. These are the ingredients that carnival operators insisted would cause Walt Disney to go bankrupt, because his new Disneyland was going to have none of them. Walt had called together several amusement park owners and operators and ran past them his idea for a new theme park; they were all convinced he would fail miserably.

As MousePlanet readers are well aware, the newest Disney park "Disney's California Adventure" (DCA) prominently features a Ferris wheel-like structure, and sports many midway games between the two prominent roller coasters. Has Disney come full circle? The answer, of course, is that DCA includes all the ingredients the carnival operators wanted to see back in 1955 ... including beer.

Alcohol was first introduced to Disney parks in 1982, when EPCOT Center opened (now called just Epcot). The idea was that this park would cater more to adults, since it was geared more toward entertaining education. There were few rides that pitched bodies around and risked the sort of nausea that alcohol plus carnival rides seem to induce at many other resorts worldwide. Unquestionably, alcohol has been a bit hit at Epcot, causing few problems and making quite a few visitors happy (particularly many overseas guests who, for cultural reasons, frequently enjoy moderate alcohol with a meal).

But alcohol at Epcot is mostly presented as a natural complement to a meal: there is beer in the German pavilion, wine at the French showcase, and so on. DCA takes a different approach, one more familiar to the non- Disney world of amusement parks. Here alcohol is more visibly hawked from vendors, and in some cases the very food and drink locations are themed around the alcohol, raising awareness still further.

A case on point is the Mondavi complex, discussed in prior columns. Wine is not just a natural meal complement here; rather, it is the raison d'etre for this establishment. Still, wine -- for better or worse -- carries a certain social baggage with it that evokes a kind of refinement. Beer, on the other hand, is seen by the public at large as more crass, more bourgeois, and less snooty. Don't get me wrong, I prefer beer myself, but this does mark a shift in Disney's thinking, for beer is highlighted at DCA every bit as much as wine is.

Pacific Wharf Distribution Company truck
Pacific Wharf Distribution Company truck

Take the beer truck in the Pacific Wharf region, for example. Emblazoned with the words "Pacific Wharf Distribution Company," this supposed delivery truck does nothing except distribute beer. Specifically, it sells Karl Strauss beer. Who or what is Karl Strauss? Well, in a nod to the park's California theme, Disney decided to feature in this location the brews of a regional microbrewer. Karl Strauss brewing is based in San Diego, and like many microbrewing companies, it features products which are noticeably better than your typical "American" beers. The pilsner is darker and more robust, the ales are actually red and full- bodied, and the taste of the beers, in general, is stronger -- one can almost taste the ingredients. I don't mean to imply that Strauss beer is better than other microbrews (I'll leave that one to the MousePad message boards), but there is certainly no confusing Budweiser with Strauss.

At this beer truck you can also buy Kirin or Tecate beers. Why Kirin and Tecate? Seems like an odd combination until you look around the beer truck, which sits between the Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill and the Lucky Fortune Cookery. This way, you can have Mexican beer to go with your Mexican food, and Japanese beer to go with your Chinese food (I guess we're not meant to split hairs here).

All beers at the beer truck are 24 ounces and cost $4.29 -- which strikes me as rather expensive. Tasty, yes, and worth a try perhaps but not on a regular basis, not with those prices. The prices may explain why the location (operated by Foods and not Outdoor Vending, by the way) is not quite as busy as the Park probably wants. During the busier and sunny Spring Break, the location had either a constant one person or none at all in line. What would it take to generate enough interest to have a line? My take: a price drop.

Between Takes, a largely hidden vending truck in the Hollywood Pictures Backlot
Between Takes, a largely hidden vending truck in the Hollywood Pictures Backlot

If you buy a beer from the beer truck, you can wander around with your bright yellow cup. The same is true of beer purchased from Between Takes, a largely hidden vending truck in the Hollywood Pictures Backlot that sells pretzels and beer. This location is never open, it seems to me. Recently the liquor license posted at Between Takes was a month expired, which tells me how often they remain closed!

You won't find yellow cups if you try to buy beer at Taste Pilot's Grill, however. Here the selection is dramatically reduced to draft American beers such as Budweiser and Bud Lite. At $4 a pop, this is definitely not a bargain. What's odd about the beer here, though, is the cup. Alcohol is served in a red cup at Taste Pilot's, and you may not take your red cups with you around the park: the alcohol has to be consumed "on the property" of the restaurant. Why? Because this restaurant has its own liquor license, separate from the park- wide one used for the beer trucks. The thinking behind this plan is that if someone should happen to mess up and sell liquor to minors, then only one license will be affected, and the others could continue selling liquor. An interesting factoid to file away for future reference.

Avalon Cove
Avalon Cove

Avalon Cove, which has its own license (as does Mondavi), sells alcohol as well. This restaurant is -- by virtue of its high prices -- more exclusive and manages to avoid feeling as if it's even in a theme park, so I object less to the presence of alcohol here. The upstairs bar, in fact, is quite nice, though largely unpopulated during the day (because people are riding rides -- that's what they do at amusement parks) and still only sparsely populated at night (because people have gone home, tired after a day of riding rides and are usually fleeing the deserted nighttime scene at DCA).

So bottom line is: does the beer at DCA represent a seismic change for Disney? Not really. It does represent, however, a further blurring of the lines between the traditional amusement park and the themed environment for which Disney used to be famous. Arguably, Disney is trying to present the themed environment of a traditional amusement park, but for many that's not the point of a Disney park. What the highlight on beer brings is a largely unconscious shift in guests' perspectives of the park.

When all is said and done, what is the difference between Paradise Pier at DCA and the nearby Six Flags' Magic Mountain? Both have bare- bones thrill rides that feature little story or theming, and both offer alcoholic drinks. In these two respects, they differ from the traditional atmosphere at neighboring Disneyland. It may well be that Paradise Pier is meant to be a facsimile of a park like Magic Mountain, but at some level that irony and distance wear off, and the guests are left with the impression that little of substance is any different. Except perhaps that the rides at Magic Mountain are more fun.

Naturally, the beer alone cannot generate this kind of response, even subconsciously. But it certainly nudges DCA along that road toward mediocrity. Just because everyone else and doing it doesn't mean Disney should also. And the fact that alcohol might be profitable in the short term (though I doubt that it even is profitable at DCA), doesn't mean that Disney should go for the quick profit. Profit at the expense of the overall experience means that visitors are less likely to visit as often as they would otherwise. Long term thinking like that, unwritten though they may be, forms the governing principles of Disneyland Park and has, to my mind, enabled Walt's first dream to succeed for four decades.

By the way, Walt allowed the carnival operators their opinions, but told them they were all wrong. His theme park would have no carny rides, no midway, no unthemed attractions, and no beer. Well, beer has come to the Disneyland Resort at long last. Like many patrons, I'll even have a drink once in a while. But I do so with the full knowledge of what this does to the overall "magic effect" Disney parks, and I find it increasingly difficult to drink Disney's beer without ambivalence.


Questions and comments can be sent to:  kevinyee@mouseplanet.com

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